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Learning in the Thick of It

The Idea in Brief

Like many managers, you probably conduct after-action reviews (AARs) to extract lessons from key projects and apply them to others. But in most companies, AARs don't fulfill their promise: Scrapped projects, poor investments, and failed safety measures repeat themselves--while hoped-for gains rarely materialize. One manufacturing executive, reading an AAR report for a failed project that had stumbled twice before, realized with horror that the team was "discovering" the same mistakes all over again.

How to transform your AARs from diagnoses of past failure into aids for future success? Realize that looking for lessons isn't the same as learning them. View the AAR as an ongoing learning process--rather than a one-time meeting, report, or postmortem. Set the stage for AARs with rigorous before-action planning--articulating your intended results, anticipated challenges, and lessons from previous similar situations. Conduct mini-AARs after each project milestone--holding everyone accountable for applying key lessons quickly in the next project phase.

Companies that master this process gain--and sustain--competitive advantage. They avoid repeating the kinds of errors that gnaw away at stakeholder value. And instead of merely fixing problems, they adapt more rapidly and effectively than rivals to challenges no one even imagined.

The Idea in Practice

To improve your AAR process:

Build Your AAR Regimen Slowly

Rather than applying the AAR process across the board, begin using it selectively--on projects where the payoff is greatest and leaders have committed to working through several AAR cycles.

Focus on efforts critical to your team's mission, so people will be motivated to participate.

Conduct a Before-Action Review (BAR)

Before embarking on an important project, answer these questions:

  • "What are our intended results and metrics?" Does your team want to improve product quality? Accelerate its response to emergencies? Improve sales win/loss ratio?
  • "What challenges do we anticipate?" Do you expect shortages of certain resources? A turn in customers' preferences?
  • "What have we or others learned from similar projects?" Be candid about past failures--focusing on improving performance, not placing blame.
  • "What will enable us to succeed this time?" What practices helped you succeed in earlier efforts? What worked before that should be tested under different circumstances?

Responses to these questions align team members' objectives and set the stage for effective AARs as your project unfolds.

Conduct Mini-BARs and AARs

Break big projects into smaller chunks, bookended by short BAR and AAR meetings conducted in task-focused groups. You'll establish feedback loops that maximize project performance and foster an ongoing learning culture.

But tailor your process to fit each project and project phase. For example, during periods of intense activity, use brief daily AAR meetings to help teams coordinate and improve the next day's work. At other times, less frequent meetings--monthly or quarterly--may be sufficient to identify and correct emerging problems.

Focus on Your Own Team's Learning

Lessons must first and foremost benefit your team, so resist any urge to create an AAR document specifically for some other corporate use. Focus team members on improving their own learning and, as a result, their own performance.

Your people may generate a lesson during the AAR process, but they won't have learned the lesson until they've changed their behavior. It takes multiple iterations to produce solutions that stand up under any conditions.

Copyright 2005 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Further Reading


Major Steckleson at the National Training Center (A)

Harvard Business School Case

January 5, 2004; revised August 26, 2004

by Scott Snook, Jeremy Schneider, and Robert Kaderavek

The U.S. Army originated the concept of the AAR process. In this Harvard Business School case, Captain James Steckleson is an "observer-controller" at the U.S. Army's National Training Center, located deep in the heart of California's Mojave Desert. It's his job to make sure that the 3rd Armored Cavalry Squadron leaves its two-week combat training a better unit than when it arrived. On the squadron's seventh day of simulated combat, mistakes are made--big mistakes. Captain Steckleson steps in to help the unit learn--applying the AAR process in ways that can help any organization boost its performance amid rapid change and uncertainty.


Learning in Action: A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work

Harvard Business School Press

February 2003

by David A. Garvin

This book includes guidelines on applying the AAR process to enhance organizational learning. Garvin describes the basic steps in every learning process--acquiring, interpreting, and applying knowledge--then examines the critical challenges facing managers at each of these stages and various ways to meet those challenges. He then introduces three modes of learning--intelligence gathering, experience, and experimentation--and shows how to deploy each mode effectively. Detailed case studies of learning in action at organizations such as Xerox, L.L. Bean, the U.S. Army, and GE are included. Garvin also discusses the leadership role senior executives must play to make learning a day-to-day reality in their organizations.


Putting the Learning Organization to Work: Learning After Doing

Harvard Business School Publishing

May 20, 1996

by David A. Garvin

When you apply the AAR process effectively, you enable your company to profit from its experiences--repeating past successes while avoiding past failures. This video shows how the U.S. Army uses AAR to capture lessons learned after every operation and systematically share those lessons throughout its vast organization. This program also demonstrates how you can immediately apply the Army's simple yet powerful methodology to your own company.

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